MEXICO CITY (AFP) — Two-time world champion Max Verstappen gave Red Bull reason to smile again on Saturday, Oct. 29, when he secured pole position for Sunday’s Mexico City Grand Prix with an authoritative late qualifying lap.
After 24 hours of arguments and derision following the announcement of Red Bull’s penalty for breaching Formula One’s $145 million cost cap last year, it was a sweet return to success with his sixth pole this year and the 17th of his career.
The 25-year-old Dutchman clocked a best lap of 1 minute 17.775 seconds to finish 0.304 seconds ahead of George Russell and his Mercedes’ teammate, seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton.
Verstappen took control on his first run in Q3 and then trimmed his time to resist the threat from the much-improved Mercedes team. He will be hunting a record 14th win in a single season on Sunday.
“That was a good qualifying,” the Dutchman said. “It was a close one, but we made a few adjustments to the car and got into a better rhythm so to be on pole here is, of course, amazing.
“It’s a very long run down to Turn One here, so we need a good start, but I think we have a quick car and that’s what is most important. The passion of the fans here is really incredible and, in the stadium, it is just amazing to drive there.”
His Red Bull teammate and local hero Sergio Perez was fourth ahead of Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz and a resurgent Valtteri Bottas of Alfa Romeo.
Verstappen said he was sure Perez “will be there in the fight tomorrow”.
Charles Leclerc, who crashed heavily on Friday, was seventh in the second Ferrari ahead of McLaren’s Lando Norris and the Alpines of two-time champion Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon.
Russell was disappointed. “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” he said on his team radio, after running wide on his final lap. “The team deserved more today. They’ve produced a really great car this weekend and it felt like our pole to have and I did a terrible lap at the end.”
Hamilton, who had harboured hopes of doing better, was philosophical.
“This is the best qualifying we’ve had all year. It just shows that perseverance and never giving up can pay off. I’m quite happy with that position – it’s a along way to Turn One.”
The session came after many leading teams reacted negatively to Red Bull’s $7 milliion fine and 10 percent reduction in permitted aerodynamic research for overspending last year.
Ferrari said they were deeply “unhappy” and Mercedes said Christian Horner’s description of his team’s punishment as ‘draconian’ was “an exaggeration” while McLaren said it was “not harsh enough.”
Home hero Perez
All that was set aside, when qualifying started at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez where the air temperature was 25 degrees Celsius and the track 49, near perfect conditions.
The opening Q1 period saw Hamilton maintain Mercedes’ much-improved form in the rarefied atmosphere, at 2,200 metres altitude, by topping the times ahead of Verstappen and Leclerc.
Four-time champion Sebastian Vettel was among those eliminated.
After a turbulent start to the season, when they were beset by ‘porpoising’ problems, Mercedes had made steady progress and the Russell-Hamilton one-two was their best session result of the year.
Hamilton, in 1:18.552, took command ahead of Russell by 0.013 seconds, the pair heading Bottas and Verstappen on their first runs before Perez emerged alone to a roar from the sell-out crowd.
‘Checo, Checo,’ they chanted as he took third on a set of new soft tyres.
On his second run, Verstappen regained third, but was relegated a place by Sainz seizing second and splitting the ‘silver arrows’ for Ferrari.
At the flag, it was Daniel Ricciardo of McLaren, Zhou Guayyu of Alfa Romeo, Alpha Tauri’s Yuki Tsunoda and Pierre Gasly and Kevin Magnussen who missed out on the top-ten shootout.
The top five were separated by less than one-tenth of a second, the top four by just 0.014 seconds – a clear signal of a close tussle for pole position to come as Perez went early into Q3.
His 1:18.153 was swiftly beaten by Verstappen in 1:17.947 with a sensational lap that was unmatched on the first runs as Hamilton’s best lap, in 1:18.094, was deleted for exceeding track limits on the kerb at Turn Three.